The debate over whether the book or the movie is better has never made any sense to me – it’s always the book. I can’t think of a single time when I ever thought a movie adaptation was better than the book but I also avoid seeing movies made from my favourite books. If it is something based on a book that I was just so-so about then I am happy to see the movie but if the characters meant something to me then I always skip it. I prefer to have that character and setting remain as I first imagined them.
This avoidance can be hard to do in a world where popular culture flashes images in your face of movie trailers and actors doing press for their latest projects months and months before they are released. Before you know it you have seen that Robert Downey has been cast as Dr. Dolittle and that has spoiled the pleasure you felt in reading that book as a kid entirely. Dr. Dolittle will always look just like Iron Man to you – that’s just a random example.
When news hit that Greta Gerwig was taking on the task of adapting Little Women it was hard to decide whether to see it or not. There have been popular film versions before and they are checked out at the library all of the time. That story has always been comforting in book and on the screen, of course. In 1933 Katherine Hepburn played Jo March to Douglass Montgomery’s Theodore Laurence and in 1949 Margaret O’Brien, Peter Lawford, Elizabeth Taylor and June Allyson were in a version that was directly based on the previous film – talk about an incredible group of actors, just look at that movie poster. Decades later a very 90’s cast tried their hand at Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie and that has remained a beloved staple among Little Women fans for years but with the 150th anniversary of the publication of her book, tributes to Louisa May Alcott started coming fast and furious (including updated versions in book and film formats).
Any attention to the work of a prolific and fascinating author is welcome news but none of these caught my eye like the interviews that I saw about all of the preparation that Greta Gerwig was doing for her screenplay. She enveloped herself in all of Louisa May’s writing, not just the text of the book. Gerwig made sure that she was informed about the author’s life and that of her family and friends. It informed all of the decisions that were made about the screenplay and, when she was chosen to direct the film, had an impact on the final, amazing product. Everything seemed to align to make this a movie (based on a beloved book) so worth seeing.
Gerwig does make changes to the timeline of the story – that might be difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with the book – but this adds excitement to the film and could make it more enjoyable to someone who thinks of it as an adaptation of a children’s story. Her decisions change the pace of the film in a way that hasn’t been done before and it works so well.
If you are a long-time fan of the sisterly moments, beautiful costumes, and chatter between Jo and Laurie, those are all still there (and in so many cases are exactly as they appeared in the text of the book) but she has taken material from Louisa May’s books and other writing to flesh out the story of the March sisters. It’s a very 2019 version of Little Women, although on the surface it looks like 1868. She has chosen to highlight some of the themes that have always made Jo one of Alcott’s most appealing characters – her desire to have a career, her ‘boyish ways’, her wish to fight side-by-side with her father in the war, and the way that she pushes Laurie away – and shine less of a light on the parts of the book that are not of interest to her. That’s fine. Anyone who wants a complete reading of the book can pick it up from the library or use Overdrive to read it electronically.
Gerwig’s version is a delight from beginning to end. The casting choices made for each of the four girls could not have been better. As each actor was announced I had some misgivings about Emma Watson as Meg because I wasn’t sure that she would become the older sister I had in my heart but it all came together with perfection. Oh, and the costumes, the costumes! Well, the 2020 Academy Award for Costume Design went to Jacqueline Durran for this film and she absolutely deserved it because the pages came alive on the screen – from the dowdy colours Jo wears in the attic to the splendid gowns that Amy wears in Paris. It’s a splendid representation of what their lives might have been like at that time and just how they are described in the book. And then we have Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee and Meryl Streep (she is sublime, really) as Aunt March in a combination that made for true movie magic.
So whether you are one of those people who has never read Little Women or you have been taking the ostrich path of avoiding the film versions (like I have), the 2019 film will brighten any day. Spend some time with these four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – you will be so glad that you did.
— Penny M.